Coronavirus, Italy, California: Your Friday Briefing

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Good morning.

We’re covering another macabre coronavirus milestone in Italy, what the American government knew about pandemics, and the anxious mood in Madrid.

Another day, another grim milestone: Italy’s reported coronavirus death toll grew by 427 to more than 3,405 on Thursday, overtaking China’s. Experts say Italy’s total confirmed caseload, 41,035, could double by the end of the month and surpass China’s official tally of 80,928.

President Trump, who initially played down the risks of the coronavirus outbreak, said on Thursday said that millions of masks were in production to help ease a dire shortage in hospitals. “Nobody knew there would be a pandemic or epidemic of this proportion,” he said.

Internal documents show that the federal government did in fact know how underfunded, underprepared and uncoordinated it would be for a life-or-death battle with a virus for which no treatment existed. But a sense of urgency did not rise to the highest levels of Congress or the executive branch.

Background: American officials began to study the growing risk of pandemics during the George W. Bush administration, and President Barack Obama created a specific agency to plan for them.

Notable: In 2016, one of Mr. Obama’s national security aides wrote that “a minimum planning benchmark might be an epidemic an order of magnitude or two more difficult than that presented by the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, with much more significant domestic spread.”

But unlike European leaders, President Vladimir Putin has long offered Russians stability, competent governance and greater respect on the world stage in exchange for restrictions on democratic rights. Can he now convince an uneasy public that agreeing to that grand bargain was worth it?

Related: The coronavirus hit harder in Europe than in China because its leaders failed to act quickly and boldly. To some extent, Europeans are now paying a price for living in democracies where people are used to free movement and governments worry about public opinion.

Looking ahead: British health officials are building an app that would alert people who have come in contact with someone known to have the coronavirus. It would rely on voluntary participation and could be adapted for other countries wary of China’s domestic surveillance efforts.

The African-American artists who sailed through the Obama White House for eight years shaped the depiction of black America and adjusted the way the U.S. looks at itself.

The artists represent a new, 21st-century vanguard of creators, our critic Wesley Morris writes in the introduction to a collection of interviews with Kerry Washington, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kendrick Lamar, Oprah Winfrey and other luminaries.

But the primacy energizing their art, Wesley adds, is centuries old.

Germany: As part of a larger crackdown on the far right, the government shut down two clubs that are part of an anti-Semitic movement that refuses to recognize the modern German state.

Snapshot: Australian wildlife officials have been dropping water, carrots and sweet potatoes out of helicopters to help save threatened wallabies on the brink of starvation in a fire-ravaged area.

World Happiness Report: Finland once again topped the annual list. The study measures general life satisfaction and confidence that one lives in a place where people take care of one another — not how well you express your emotions.

What we’re playing: Home-schooling-during-a-pandemic bingo, from McSweeney’s. “We all need a chuckle,” says Chris Stanford on the Briefings team. “Who has ‘overly ambitious and completely unrealistic color-coded schedule’”?

Cook: Melissa Clark’s baked oats, from her “Cooking From Your Pantry” series in our daily roundup of coronavirus coverage. To make enough for three or four, heat your oven to 350 degrees and bring a kettle of water to a boil.

In a shallow baking dish, combine 3 cups boiling water and 1 cup steel-cut or cracked oats. Stir in ¼ cup peanut butter (or almond butter) until smooth-ish. (Don’t worry about a few lumps.) Season the mix with a big pinch of salt, and some cinnamon or nutmeg if you like. Cover with foil and bake for 1 hour, stirring halfway through. Taste, and if the oats aren’t cooked enough, let it bake a few minutes longer.

“I like this splashed with cream and drizzled with maple syrup (or brown sugar is great, too). But it’s good on its own, or maybe with sliced bananas. And it will keep you going all day long.”

Look: Before many of New York City’s cultural institutions closed over coronavirus concerns, four photographers explored how people there look at art — and sometimes ignore it.

Smarter Living: Exercising now is tricky, but there are ways to go outside and move safely.

As of Thursday, Spain had 17,149 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 767 deaths — the most in both categories after mainland China, Italy and Iran. Mike asked our correspondent Raphael Minder what he was seeing on the ground in the Spanish capital.

What’s the mood in Madrid right now?

In normal times, Madrid ranks as one of Europe’s most vibrant cities, with thousands of tapas bars and good weather that encourages people to socialize outdoors into the early hours of the morning. So it’s been very weird to see the city almost closed down and so silent.

The schools have already been shut for one week, so this crisis is starting to make people very anxious about how long the lockdown could last. Among the few people out on the street, many are walking their dog or pushing a shopping trolley — two of the activities that are exempt from the government order to stay indoors.

But there are gestures of solidarity, like the applause given daily by residents from their balconies to thank the doctors and nurses who are fighting the coronavirus.

You’ve written that Spain’s fractured politics have complicated the government’s response to the virus. Do you expect to see less arguing, and more unity, as the crisis escalates?

Last weekend, when Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced a state of emergency, he got some scathing criticism from opposition parties for having responded too late. The crisis has also fueled territorial tensions, particularly since health care is one of the policy areas that is managed by regional administrations rather than the central government. Both Catalan and Basque politicians (who are from regions where there have been strong independence movements) have been warning Mr. Sánchez against reducing their powers.

But as the coronavirus numbers for Spain have kept climbing, politicians have mostly set aside their differences. Before the crisis, Mr. Sánchez was facing an uphill struggle to get approval for his next budget. Instead, he got broad support for a €200 billion relief package.

The question is whether this economic aid will be disbursed efficiently and fast enough. And if the lockdown doesn’t start slowing the coronavirus in Spain soon, it could put Mr. Sánchez under renewed political pressure.

That’s it for this briefing. Until Monday.

— Mike

Thank you
To Mark Josephson and Eleanor Stanford for the break from the news. You can reach the team at

• We’re listening to “The Daily.” Our latest episode is about a cluster of coronavirus cases near New York City.
• Here’s today’s Mini Crossword puzzle, and a clue: First of a journalist’s five W’s (three letters). You can find all our puzzles here.
• The New York Times has published a free e-book that answers your questions about the coronavirus pandemic.

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